September 15, 2009

InvestigateWest in the field: Monroe’s Swift Night Out

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As part of InvestigateWest’s advancing story on the Pacific Flyway, this past Saturday I spent the evening with a thick, buzzing crowd of bird watchers as we gathered in semi-rural Monroe, Washington for a twice a year avifauna spectacle – the fall migration of Vaux’s Swifts.

Photo by Natasha Walker

Photos by Natasha Walker

By dusk, the grassy lawn outside Frank Wagner Elementary School was all but overflowing with plastic lawn chairs, picnic blankets and bobbing swift headbands, courtesy of the school’s crafty students (see photo). Education booths hosted by local Audubon Society chapters lured both amateur and experienced “Swifties,” who were eager to talk about their love for a bird that weighs less than two quarters, and shows its face only in May and September.

About a thousand of these cigar-shaped creatures descended on the school’s ancient, unstable brick chimney that night – as always, thirty minutes before sunset and in a counter-clockwise, tail-first spiral. Once inside, they overlap like shingles on the brick walls to hibernate for the evening.

Vaux's Swifts descend into Monroe chimney

Vaux's Swifts descend into Monroe chimney

The sunset aeronautics are stunning, but the night is not just a show for the flight-hearted. The Monroe chimney is thought to be one of the top four stopover roosts for the Vaux’s Swift, who make their way to Mexico each year from as far north as Alaska, often traveling up to 105 mph. Unable to perch on trees, they prefer to spend their nights clinging to the inside of hollowed old growth snags, but logging and development have thwarted that tradition. So, they’ve turned to chimneys instead. Some say they’ve been roosting in the building’s brick tower for 40 years.

Larry Schwitters, an ornithologist who leads the budding citizen scientist project called Vaux’s Happening, has been attempting to locate all communal roosting sites for this species of swift. His mapping of the major West Coast sleepy stopovers is perhaps the most comprehensive to date and may help save what are proving to be the most critical — and vulnerable — modern day roosting sites: the crumbling chimneys of the 1930s.

With support from citizens who have traveled in flocks all along the West Coast to watch the birds’ sunset ritual, and in many cases help count them, efforts to preserve these sites have been fruitful. In Eugene, the University of Oregon helped install wires to support the deteriorating structure of the Agate Hall incinerator, which rivals only Monroe’s chimney and Portland’s Chapman Elementary School chimney for the world’s largest population of roosting Vaux’s Swifts. And at Saturday’s event, it was announced that the Washington legislature had budgeted $100,000 to Monroe’s Frank Wagner Elementary School to help restore the chimney, rather than destroy it, as previously planned. The Audubon Society has since made plans to apply for a grant from Toyota to place cameras inside the chimney — allowing “Swifties” to continue their watch on the birds.

This weekend has reinforced the power of volunteer citizen scientists in change — everyday people committing their time to conservation projects and making a difference. It’s also something InvestigateWest is very interested in. If you would like to help us in our exploration of the condition of the Pacific Flyway and its feathered inhabitants, please contact me at nwalker (@) invw.org.

— Natasha Walker

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